Belfast Telegraph

Stormont politicians don't speak for us all on same-sex marriage

By Jane Graham

It's hardly a surprise, but it's a great shame that once again Stormont has rejected equal rights for gay couples by voting against same-sex marriage. Yes, a great shame, in every sense of the word.

As Amnesty's programme director in Northern Ireland, Patrick Corrigan, has warned, the continuing battle to "hold back the tide of equality" is likely to lead to legal appeals from gay couples seeking to wed, as the fort-holding breaches international law. With Northern Ireland now the only part of the UK interested in discriminating people on the basis of who they want to privately have sex with, the province could see itself increasingly making headlines in the British Press which present it as an embarrassingly backwards and intolerant place.

In recent months, campaigner Peter Tatchell in The Guardian, while praising the progression the rest of the UK has made with regards to acceptance and education regarding gay couples, described Northern Ireland as a "bastion of homophobia". In March, an article on Channel 4's website referred to the "dark picture" in the country and said the legacy of the Troubles was being 40 years behind human rights developments.

The channel didn't have to work too hard to find evidence of intolerance that the rest of the UK might find hard to believe could come from the mouths of respected, powerful politicians, so torrential was the hatred, so proud the prejudice. The article recalled Iris Robinson's words when she was DUP healthy spokesperson and a Westminster MP: "There can be no viler act, apart from homosexuality and sodomy, than sexually abusing innocent children." They also quoted Ian Paisley Jnr's unapologetic, "I'm repulsed by gays and lesbianism." The piece also referred to the most recent research into experiences of growing up in Northern Ireland, which suggest half of gay teenagers are bullied at school, and a quarter are likely to attempt suicide. Bearing in mind the references to holy scripture wheeled out in Stormont again this week, and the DUP's plan to use a petition of concern to veto a 'yes' vote, it's unlikely those views of Northern Ireland as a tough country to be a minority in will have been challenged this week.

What's most frustrating about this, apart from the simple moral wrongness of Stormont's stand, is the distortive picture it paints of the people of Northern Ireland, in particular the Protestants, whom many British presume are represented fairly accurately by anti gay-marriage unionist politicians.

In what sense are Stormont's privileged wielders of power and arbiters of opinion truly representative of their flock? 89% of unionists voted against gay marriage. But according to recent poll figures, only 44% of Protestants said they didn't want Northern Ireland to follow the change in law which has taken place in the rest of the UK (and interestingly, that figure was almost halved when it came to those under under 44 – the future is, thank God, forward-thinking).

The DUP's Mervyn Storey claimed the rejection of same-sex marriage reflected the views of many Protestants and Roman Catholics, people of other persuasions, and none, who "want no change to the definition of marriage".

Well, yes. But it didn't match the views of almost as many in all camps who feel the opposite. In fact, having this issue cut so clearly between sectarian lines – all of Sinn Fein voted for the change, which clearly doesn't mirror their voters either – is a terrible symbol of just how far into the modern progressive political arena Stormont has travelled. To quote Blackadder, about as far as an asthmatic ant with some heavy shopping.

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